July 31, 2011

Power of the wind

I OFTEN WONDER at how little power it takes to move a boat through water. For centuries we have moved bulky goods long distances by water and it has proved to be most economical. But, of course, it’s not fast. And neither are most sailboats, especially the ones designed to carry reasonable loads.

It’s interesting to note how little power it takes to drive a sailboat. For instance, a dinghy sail of 75 square feet generates only about 1 1/2 horsepower in Force 4 winds — 11 to 16 knots.

If you can fly 500 square feet of sail, that same breeze will rustle up 10 horses to push you along. That’s certainly underpowered according to the engine sizes we’ve got used to in motorboats, but nevertheless it works for sailboats if the hull shape is slippery enough.

But then, again, your horsepower under sail depends on the speed of the wind as well. Energy equals mass times the square of its speed, so a Force 6 wind of 22 to 27 knots does not generate twice the horsepower of a wind blowing at 11 to 16 knots. If you double the wind speed, the horsepower goes up four times, which is why most small sailboats have to start reefing when the wind gets above 15 knots or so.

And what happens when there no wind? Well, one human being in good condition can produce about 1/4 horsepower for about 40 minutes, and the maximum output from a trained male athlete is a little less than 2 horsepower — but for only a few seconds. Rowing a dinghy at 3 or 4 knots in calm water takes about 1/6 horsepower and you can keep this up for several hours at a time, but it becomes obvious that moving a bigger craft, by rowing or sculling over the stern, is much heavier, slower work, and for short distances only.

Today’s Thought
You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.
— Emerson, Journals.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #229
The old rule was that wood will not rot if it is always kept thoroughly wet or thoroughly dry. But many wooden boats are being sheathed with fiber cloth and epoxy resin these days. The theory is that without sufficient water, and lacking oxygen, rot fungi cannot grow inside epoxy-coated wood. But no epoxy coating is a total barrier to water vapor, and I always presume that no matter what you do, water will find its way in sooner or later, which is why it might be preferable to paint at least one surface with ordinary oil-based paint. That will allow trapped moisture to escape.

“Does you dog have an impressive family tree?”
“No, he just uses any old one.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 28, 2011

Anchoring rules

WHAT DO YOU DO if someone anchors too close to you for comfort? Well, it helps to know the rules, for a start.

The first boat to anchor has certain rights over others who come along later, and those rights are the result of centuries of practical seamanship. They spring from common courtesy but they are also backed up by the law.

A boat that is firmly attached to the seabed by an anchor and line must be given room to swing freely. It does not matter if you think she has too much rode out, and is swinging over an unreasonably wide arc. She is entitled to whatever swinging room she chooses. Furthermore, you can’t box her in. She must be allowed reasonable maneuvering room when she wants to leave, and that might be quite a lot of room if she’s an engineless sailboat.

If someone attempts to anchor too close, your first obligation is to inform the newcomer that he might foul your berth.

Admiralty case law states: “A vessel shall be found at fault if it ... anchors so close to another vessel as to foul her when swinging ... (and/or) fails to shift anchorage when dragging dangerously close to another anchored vessel. Furthermore, the vessel that anchored first shall warn the one who anchored last that the berth chosen will foul the former’s berth.” (U.S. Decision No. 124-5861 — 1956).

There is one point to remember, however. If you start to drag, it doesn’t matter that you were the first to anchor. You must take immediate action to avoid collision and find a new berth.

Today’s Thought
Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy.
—Emerson, Uncollected Lectures: Social Aims.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #228
What’s the difference between a windlass and a capstan? Well, a windlass is a winch, most often an anchor winch, that has a horizontal barrel or barrels. Yacht windlasses often have two barrels, a smooth one with flanges for hauling rope, known as a gypsy, and another with recesses for links of chain, known as a wildcat. A capstan, on the other hand has a vertical barrel. In days gone by, the capstan was turned by men using spikes fitted horizontally into holes around the capstan head.

“Glad to meet you, Gloria, I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Yeah, but can you prove it?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 26, 2011

Too late to love

MY HEART SKIPPED a beat or two while I was looking through Craigslist the other day. The most gorgeous boat was for sale, a trim little sistership to John Guzzwell’s famous Trekka, the 21-footer in which he sailed around the world.

This one is called Tern, and she’s a Laurent Giles-designed Columbia-class sloop, strip planked of Port Orford yellow cedar on oak frames, and launched in 1978. The entire hull, deck, and cabin are covered in 1.5 oz. polypropylene cloth and epoxied.

She’s being offered for $7,500 with an extensive inventory. And you can’t look at a picture of her without dreaming of the South Pacific, blue water and warm winds, and white sandy beaches on exotic palm-fringed islands. She's built for the deep water and ready to go — at half the price of a new baby car.

She is, of course, very cramped below, although she does have a solid fuel stove and a small chart table, along with a couple of bunks. And she is made of wood, which will put off a lot of buyers who don’t appreciate its advantages.

Wood is still as good a material for building boats as it ever was. It’s stronger, pound for pound, than steel aluminum or fiberglass. It floats, it accepts fastenings well, it’s plentiful, it’s easily repaired with simple tools and it’s biodegradable. And, best of all, it’s warm and appealing to the human soul. It certainly stirs mine. In fact, I fell in love with Tern on the spot.

My wife wasn’t jealous. “You could buy her just for the fun of having her,” she said.

But no. If I bought Tern I would be obliged to cross an ocean. Maybe two or three. That’s her destiny. She would be forcing me to go. And my conscience wouldn’t let her sit in port and rot.

But the timing is wrong for me. It’s too late. I am now too jaded and cynical. She needs someone young and passionate, someone willing to forgo luxury and safety in that wonderful wild, headlong quest for excitement and new experiences.

I hope she finds that someone soon.


Today’s Thought
The woods please us above all things.
—Vergil, Eclogues

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #227
How much wind can you expect on an ocean crossing? Well, approximately 65 percent of all ocean voyaging is done in winds of 12 knots or less. That’s an observation by Lin and Larry Pardey. It’s confirmed by world voyager Eric Hiscock, who said that during his three circumnavigations the trade winds averaged Force 4 — from 11 to 16 knots.

Two masked men with guns confronted Seamus O’Murphy.
The bigger man asked politely: “Excuse us, sir, but can you let us have a nickel?”
“A nickel?” said Murphy, suddenly very relieved, “well sure. My pleasure. But what do you guys want with a nickel?”
“Oh, my colleague here wants to toss a coin for who gets your watch and who gets your wallet.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 24, 2011

The downside of breakage

READERS OF THIS COLUMN are an inquisitive lot. By some strange coincidence, two of them have written asking why boats break on the downwind side.

I know what they mean. I have been in this business a long time. What they’ve noticed is that sailboats caught in bad storms often limp home with their portlights bashed in, or even part of the cabintop bashed in — but always on the side away from the waves.

There is a simple answer to this conundrum. When a boat is lying ahull, that is, broadside on to wind and waves without any sail up, the force of the wind on the mast and rigging heels her over, so that she presents her strongest surface to the force of the breaking waves bearing down upon her. Her cabintop and portlights on the windward side are therefore tilted over and partly sheltered from the breakers. It’s the strong rounded hull that takes the initial pounding.

But as the wind builds, and the plunging breakers with it, the boat starts to get lifted up and thrown down bodily, landing on the leeward side and putting enormous pressure on the deckhouse and ports. That’s where the damage occurs, on the downwind side, as my observant readers have noted. And that’s why bluewater cruisers should carry plywood covers that can be bolted over the portlights, especially if they are larger than normal. And they should be bolted on before the storm develops, of course, not after the damage is done.

Today’s Thought
Being in a ship is like being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
— Samuel Johnson

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #226
As a general rule, a backing wind in the Northern Hemisphere portends bad weather. A veering wind signals the approach of better weather, but probably only after some increasingly blustery weather in the short term. It’s the opposite way around in the Southern Hemisphere. And, in case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, backing is going back against the clock, or counter-clockwise. A veering wind is changing direction clockwise.

“You say the tow-truck guy charged you $50 a mile for towing?”
“Yeah, but I got my money’s worth — I kept the brakes on all the way.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 21, 2011

Survival in hurricanes

BOATERS ON THE EAST COAST are mentally preparing themselves for another hurricane season. One owner of a 35-foot sailboat who often crosses over to the Bahamas wants to know if sailboats can survive hurricanes. “How high do the waves get, and how do yachts handle them?” he asks.

Well, certainly, many sailboats have survived hurricanes. For example, Atom, a 30-foot Tahiti ketch sailed by Jean Gau, a New York chef, survived a hurricane that sank a sail-training ship, a large square-rigger, not far away.

But it’s misleading to say a boat survived a hurricane. There are boats and there are hurricanes, and no two are the same. To a great extent, it depends on how far the boat is from the center of the hurricane, and whether she is in the safe quadrant or the dangerous quadrant.

As for the height of waves, here’s what Captain Edwin Harding, author of Heavy Weather Guide, has to say about it: Waves of 35 to 40 feet are not uncommon in an average hurricane. In giant storms they can reach to 50 feet or higher.

How do you deal with waves that high? It depends on the size of the breaking crests, the characteristics of your boat, and where the nearest land lies, whether you heave to, lie ahull, or run off. In extremis, there doesn’t seem much you can do other than take down all sail, slide the companionway tightly shut, and climb into a bunk with a lee cloth to prevent your being flung out. Any jetting crest that is taller than 55 percent of the overall length of your boat will capsize you if it hits you broadside on — a 19-foot crest if you’re aboard a 35-footer. That’s a huge plunging breaker, admittedly, but they do happen and if the wind is blowing against the Gulf Stream, things can get even worse, and very quickly.

So if I were crossing to the Bahamas and back I’d keep a good eye on the weather forecasts. I never want to be at sea in the teeth of a hurricane.

Today’s Thought
Let him who knows not how to pray go to sea.
John Ray, English Proverbs.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #225
The apparent wind direction changes by between 5 and 8 degrees from the bottom of the mast to the top, depending, of course, on high your mast is. The rule of thumb, therefore, is that the leech at the head of the sail should lie further off the wind than the leech near the clew.

Mary had a little watch,
She swallowed it one day,
So now she’s taking purgatives
To pass the time away.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 19, 2011

The ideal crew

ALL MY LIFE I’ve been searching for the ideal crew. I’m still looking. Why is this so difficult? All I ask is that my crew recognize the importance of being neat and tidy and — very important — knowing how to keep out of the way of others. Nothing irritates me more than a crew who lacks anticipation of where others are likely to want to be, and who is always in the way. Added to that, I suppose, is a wish that he always cleans up after himself and that he never leaves his stuff lying around. (And incidentally, when I say “he” in this piece, I also mean “she,” because she crews also have faults, and good ones are just as difficult to find.)

But that’s not much to ask, is it? I’m not demanding perfection. I mean, a really good crew would also be wonderful on the foredeck and an ace at spinnaker drill. A half-decent crew would be keen of eye and strong of arm, with the balance of a ballet dancer and the appetite of a canary. He’d be a fund of cheerful stories when things look bleak, and he’d know when to laugh loudly at the skipper’s jokes (which is all the time).

My ideal crew would possess the skill of a diplomat when it’s necessary to tell the skipper he’s doing something wrong. And, naturally, he’d have to be a good navigator and pilot, able to recite the Rule of the Road backward. He’d be a talented helmsman, a mechanical genius, and an excellent swimmer with lifesaving qualifications.

The best kind of crew would also be a trained cook, able to produce gourmet meals in all weathers, and a cocktail mixer of recognized stature. Needless to say, he’d also be able to reef, splice, repeat the international phonetic alphabet at will, and be trained in first-aid and firefighting.

Finally, the crème-de-la-crème of crews would:

► Never eat the last piece of chocolate or drink the last beer;

► Never need to use the head, and would be nowhere to be seen when females use the head, so as not to embarrass them;

► Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, make himself at home on the bridge deck and block the companionway steps; and

► Never appear attractive to the skipper’s wife or daughter. (And preferably should be neutered).

I say again, for Pete’s sake, is this really too much to ask?

Today’s Thought
The desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.
— Fontanes, Address to Napoleon.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #224
Whistling and bad weather. The old rule was that a sailor never whistled on watch for fear of bringing on bad weather. He could whistle during his off watch, or even play the fiddle if he wished, but the theory was that any sailor who whistled when he was supposed to be working didn’t have enough to do.

“How are things now that your husband has retired?”
“Oh, halved and doubled, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“Half pay, double husband.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 17, 2011

Breeding the perfect boat

I CAN’T THINK of anything that mankind has made that resembles a living creature more than a sailboat does. When you stop to look at a beautiful sailboat bobbing gently at anchor in a quiet bay, it’s hard to convince yourself that she’s not alive. It’s not difficult to believe that she has a soul — and is frequently as obstinate and hardheaded as any human being you’ve ever known.

Indeed, the language of the sea indicates how much like human beings boats can be. Sailors have always invested their craft with living characteristics, right from the early days of recorded history, when young girls were sacrificed and their heads placed on the bows of new boats at their launching. This was done to provide the boat with a soul, and the belief was that when the head eventually fell off the bow (usually on the maiden voyage, of course) it was a sign that the gods had accepted the sacrifices and the young girl’s soul had entered the ship. After a few centuries of this, and some rather withering criticism from the fairer sex, men stopped using young girls and substituted figureheads instead.

But the practice of regarding the boat as a living creature continued. Boats are still presumed to be female, at least in English-speaking countries, and designers try to draw them with pretty buttock lines. Boats breast waves and naval boats bear arms. Racers sail on different legs of a course. Hulls have bottoms and ribs, and sails have heads and feet. Blocks have cheeks . . . and so on.

All of which causes one to wonder what boats would be like if they were, indeed, living creatures and therefore by definition capable of reproducing themselves. Could we crossbreed different kinds of boats to make our personal favorites?

I mean, your boat might be good and seaworthy, and she might be really capacious and comfortable below. But she might not perform too well to windward and her sheerline might not win any prizes for aesthetics. What if you bred her with a slim, pretty little performer with a slim waistline?

What would we get if we crossed a Westsail 32 with a 30-Square-Meter, for example? How much would a bug-eyed Flicka be improved by an infusion of gorgeous genes from a Folkboat?

The large variety of dogs that have evolved from the basic wolf have shown us what selective breeding can do. And we can all dream, can’t we? Close your eyes and think about it. What two boats would you like to crossbreed to create your absolute favorite?

Today’s Thought
Life seems to me like a Japanese picture which our imagination does not allow to end with the margin.
— Justice O. W. Holmes.

Illiterate R Us
More proof that the people bringing us the news these days are no longer trained as journalists, or even capable of rational thought. Here’s a recent headline from Google news:

“NICE does not recommend ranibizumab for diabetic macular edema.”

I long for the simple days when headlines were comprehensible and the worst mistake was a typo, such as this famous one from The Times, London: QUEEN VICTORIA PISSES OVER BRIDGE

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #223
The ideal number of turns for wheel steering on sailboats, lock to lock, is roughly:
Boats up to 30 feet (if not feasible to fit a tiller): 1 to 2.
Boats 30 to 45 feet: 2 to 3.
Boats 50 feet and up: 3 to 5.
And lock-to-lock, remember, means from 35 degrees port rudder to 35 degrees starboard rudder.

“Why did you shoot your wife with a hunting bow and arrow?”
“I didn’t want to wake the kids, Your Honor.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 14, 2011

Socking it to them

EXTRACT FROM the blog of Laura Dekker, the 16-year-old Dutch girl who is aiming to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone. Here she is, anchored in Tonga a few days ago:

“There was no wind at all last night and mosquitoes came en masse to visit. So at 3 a.m. I was awake and I just couldn't fall asleep again ... In the morning I could hear a lot of grumbling coming from the other boats nearby, so it seems that I was not the only one who didn't sleep too good.”

Well, Laura, we’ve all been there. The bad news is that mosquitoes are one of life’s lousy lessons. The big question, always, is how far can the damn things fly? How close to shore can you anchor without being bothered by blasted mozzies?

The good news is that Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, is getting involved. Bill is putting his money where his socks are. His smelly socks.

The Gates Foundation has announced that it will help a scientific project in Tanzania that hopes to show that mosquitoes are fatally attracted to smelly socks. The plan is to make traps of stinky toejam smell and, once trapped, to kill the mosquitoes with an insecticide.

At first glance, this looks like good news for male sailors and their smelly socks. I mean, all you have to do is put your socks out in the cockpit near the stern, and you’re guaranteed a good night’s sleep while the mosquitoes congregate and sniff away to their little hearts’ delight. However (there’s always a however) if you’re a really macho sailor, you don’t wear socks. Socks are for sissy sailors.

So here’s a plea directed to Mr. Gates himself. Please, kind sir, could you organize a supersize shipment of specially smelly Tanzanian socks for us needy sailors, us what haven’t had a decent night’s sleep all rainy season? We’re willing, sir, to help with the scientific research. We might even be willing to pay a little something for the socks, if we can finagle it from the beer money.

Today’s Thought
The mighty are brought low by many a thing
Too small to name.
— Helen Hunt Jackson, Danger

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #222
Improvements in weatherliness. There are average tacking angles to the true (not apparent) wind in reasonably calm seas:
Viking longboat: 70 degrees.
Square rigger:    70 degrees.
Clipper ship:      65 degrees.
Cruising yacht:   50 to 55 degrees.
Racing yacht:     40 to 45 degrees.

“Did you hear about poor Jim? Got his nose broken in three places last night.”
“Serves him right. Maybe he’ll stay out of those places from now on.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 12, 2011

On brokers and surveyors

ONCE AGAIN, Old Wotsisname is threatening to sell his boat. This happens on a regular basis, usually after he has spent an afternoon waiting for the tide to float him off a sandbank, or when the crews of three overtaking boats in a row have given him the finger.

But this time he might be more serious than usual. He’s asking whether he should get a yacht broker or surveyor involved. I didn’t like to say I didn’t think any reputable broker would want to get mixed up with his old concrete barge, so I simply informed him of his options.

I told him the broker deals only with the sale of the boat and won’t survey it for use or condition. That’s the job of the surveyor, who won’t get involved in selling it in any way.

Once you realize that, you also realize that you cannot rely on the word of the broker about the condition of a boat, nor can you rely on the surveyor’s estimate of its worth, although he or she can give you a ballpark figure based on the sales of similar boats in similar condition.

Ordinarily, the broker represents the seller, not the buyer. His or her loyalty and obligation is to the person from whom he or she hopes to extract money, namely the seller. No matter how sweetly he or she represents the boat to you, the broker is thinking of the seller. You can, however, hire a buyer’s broker to look after your interests.

The surveyor, in similar fashion, represents only the person who pays him, and if you’re buying a boat you should choose your own surveyor, otherwise you may be subject to the less-than-honest blandishments of a surveyor suggested or provided by the seller or his agent. Pay for your own surveyor; it’s money well spent. Surveyors, incidentally, are paid by fee, usually an hourly or daily rate, plus expenses such as travel. And you have to pay whether the survey report is good or bad, and whether you buy the boat or not.

Brokers, on the other hand, receive a percentage of the final sale price, a commission. So the more money they can get for the boat, the more money they earn for themselves, and this money comes from the seller, not the buyer. So, if you’re the prospective buyer, beware when the broker spins a little tale about the wonderful condition of the boat. Depend on the surveyor for that knowledge.

As for Old Wotsisname, I don’t think he can bring himself to give money away to a broker, and I don’t think that any prospective buyer is going to spend good money on a surveyor when dilapidation and decay is so obvious. So I guess he’s stuck with her for a while.

Today’s Thought
I find it easy to portray a businessman. Being bland, rather cruel and incompetent comes naturally to me.
— John Cleese

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #221
Battling with weather helm? Tank testing has shown that a small amount of weather helm, about 2 or 3 degrees, helps to lift a sailboat to windward. But if you have apply 4 degrees or more, the rudder starts acting like a brake.

If more than one mouse are mice,
Why aren’t two houses two hice?
If more than one goose are geese,
Why aren’t two mooses two meece?
If wagons are pulled by oxen,
Why don’t the English chase foxen?
If a man can be cooled by a fan,
Why can’t fans cool a whole lot of mans?

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 10, 2011

Let it crease, for goodness’ sake

IT SEEMS TO BE very fashionable these days for cruising yachts to have loose-footed mainsails. That fashion arises from the fact that racing boats invariably have loose-footed mainsails.

Some people say a loose-footed main is easier to trim to the desired belly, and tightness of leech, but I am not one of them. I have sailed on racing boats with mainsails firmly attached to their booms in slotted tracks, and mainsails with zippered folds in the foot to give more belly downwind, and those boats gave nothing away to other boats with loose feet.

The mainsails of all my cruising boats have had their feet attached to the boom, usually with slides running in the internal boom track, for one very good reason: An attached mainsail is easier to control when you’re singlehanding and need to furl the sail in a hurry.

If you’re up on the cabintop dropping the main in any decent kind of breeze, a loose-footed sail falls all over the deck. The slippery folds of Dacron create a treacherous foothold. But if your main is attached to the boom, it’s the work of a moment to grab the leech a little way up from the boom and pull it tight, away from the mast, to form a temporary pocket. You then stuff the mainsail into the pocket, twisting as you go, until you end up with a slim sausage of sailcloth inside a nice tidy, waterproof sheath of Dacron. Slip two or three gaskets around the bundle on top of the boom and Bob’s your uncle. You can be finishing your first beer while the man with the loose-footed mainsail is still sliding around the deck trying to gather and contain his wayward folds.

My naysayers and detractors will point out that a mainsail thus used will be crushed and creased and therefore less efficient next time it’s raised. To which I say “Tough titties!” There is altogether too much racing boat influence in mollycoddling the main. It’s the racing influence that seduces people into buying loose-footed mains in the first place. Let the mainsail crease, for goodness’ sake. It’s a working sail not a work of art. What’s more, the wind and rain will smooth out those creases quite nicely next time you’re out. Your good old cruising boat will never notice the difference.

Today’s Thought
Fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity and afraid of being overtaken.
— William Hazlitt, Conversations of James Northcote

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #220
The speed of advance of a group of waves is half that of individual waves. When the wind dies, the height of the waves diminishes rapidly but the length and speed remain unchanged. The result is a swell that can run for hundreds of miles and far outrun the disturbance that caused it.

“O’Flaherty, what are you doing here? Your brother called and said you were sick and wouldn’t be coming to work today.”
“Ah begorrah, the joke’s on him. He’s not supposed to phone until tomorrow.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 7, 2011

Love what you’ve got

THERE ARE AMONG US some people who change boats often. They usually change in an upward direction; I mean, by buying bigger and more expensive boats each time. Such people are engaged on a profitless search for the perfect boat, seduced by the prospect that a boat just two or three feet longer will be faster and more comfortable than their present one, while presenting no more of a challenge to handle and maintain.

They are a doomed species. They will never find the elusive perfection they seek because every boat is a compromise between a series of conflicting design requirements, the most elementary of which affect speed, bodily comfort for the crew, cost, and seaworthiness.

The most important lesson for amateur sailors is this: Learn to be satisfied with the way your boat was designed. If, for example, it was designed for comfort and seaworthiness, with roominess down below, a modest rig, and heavy scantlings, don’t fret when other boats of similar size overtake you, or point higher than you. There’s a good reason why they’re faster. They’re more lightly built, they require bigger crews to handle their greater sail area, they don’t have lovely glowing teak joinery down below, or a fridge to keep the beers cool.

Similarly, if you have a racing boat, don’t complain that she’s wet and bounces around like a cork. Don’t curse about the money you have to spend on new sails and the work of keeping the bottom smooth and slippery. Lack of headroom? Well, of course. Tall cabintops cause windage — bad for racing boats. No fridge? Real men don’t need no damn fridges. Who keeps beer long enough anyway?

The message is simple. Learn to love what you’ve got. It’s like marriage. Appreciate the good bits. Grit your teeth and ignore the other bits. And don’t drive yourself mad lusting after what belongs to your neighbor.

Today’s Thought
He who is contented with his lot has the greatest and surest riches.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiæ

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #219
Wave heights of between 40 and 50 feet are common in heavy gales in some oceans, but there have been many reports of single waves much bigger, probably riding on the backs of other waves. A wave 80 feet high was observed from the steamship Majestic in the North Atlantic in December 1922, and meteorological authorities considered the sighting authentic. It’s safe to assume that in a whole gale in the open sea, many breakers 6 feet or more in height will spill down the fronts of waves. Furthermore, a plunging breaker as tall as 55 percent of a boat’s length on deck will almost certainly capsize her if it strikes beam-on.

Strawberry A said to Strawberry B:
“If we hadn’t been in that bed together we wouldn’t be in this jam today.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 5, 2011

Readers write back

IT’S TIME for some reader input. One reader, Dave Donkers, must have been experiencing a major crisis. He has deliberately expelled himself from the Silent Fan Club.

“Greetings, John,” he says, “OK, I’m breaking the Fan Club rules, but here goes. I first ran into your Black Box Theory in The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge, and have shamelessly used it in the USPS Boating course I teach. I believe I have found a corollary to the theory: The Box Is Leaky!!! Those who don't keep putting points in it always appear to run out of luck sooner than even the Average Sailor.”
— Dave Donkers, 30-foot houseboat Nuffernau, Illinois River.

► Well Dave, I’m sorry you had to humiliate yourself in public like this. Most people are pretty careful never to praise me or my theories, not wishing to jeopardize their privileged membership in Vigor’s Silent Fan Club.

But you are right. The Black Box is leaky. In fact I have always advised people to begin earning more points as soon as possible after making a big withdrawal. To quote from the delightful book you mention: “Those with points to spend will survive — but they must start immediately to replenish their savings, for the sea offers no credit.”

Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, loyal reader Oded Kishony wants to know: “How is the 'comfort index' calculated for a catamaran? Does it apply in the same way? I've read that cats have a more jerky motion in the water.”

► Oded, I don’t believe naval architect Ted Brewer had catamarans in mind when he invented the comfort ratio. He was thinking only of comparisons between monohulls. Cats are animals of a different stripe, although I must say in my limited experience with them I’ve never noticed a great increase in jerkiness. Their hulls are finer, less buoyant at the bow, so they don’t react as violently to oncoming waves as a mono would. Furthermore, their great beam tends to stabilize them to a certain extent from individual waves approaching at right angles. But I suspect that there are different courses for different cats, depending on their displacement and hull shape. So, actually, what I’m trying to say, without really admitting it, is: I don’t know.

Incidentally, Ted says in his excellent book, Understanding Boat Design, that he “dreamed up” the comfort ratio, tongue-in-cheek, for a magazine article some years ago. He says that “corkiness” is determined by two main factors: the beam of the hull and the area of the waterline.

Ted’s formula, for enquiring minds, is: Displacement divided by [65 x (0.7LWL + 0.3LOA) x B1.333]

Today’s Thought
O my good lord, that comfort comes too late;
’Tis like a pardon after execution;
That gentle physic, given in time, had cur’d me;
But now I am past all comforts here but prayers.
— Shakespeare, Henry VIII

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #218
How much open water is needed for waves to reach their maximum height? The old rule is that a fetch (a stretch of deep water unaffected by land masses) of about 600 miles is required. The wind must blow in the same direction for a certain minimum time for the sea to become fully developed, and the rule here is that the time, in hours, equals the wind speed in knots. That is to say, a 20-knot wind will take about 20 hours to form its biggest waves, and so on.

Number Three said to Number Two: “Hey gorgeous, let’s get together and multiply.”
“Forget it,” said Number Two, “you’re just a six maniac.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 3, 2011

The law of unaverages

THE LAW OF AVERAGES produces some painful statistics for amateur sailors. This year, according to the law of averages, some of us will jam the dinghy painter around the propeller shaft. Some of us will drag anchor and go aground. Some of us will have fires in the galley. Some of us will lose a mast. Some of us will fall overboard. Some of us will drown.

There is no gainsaying these statistics. They are horribly real. They are average because they actually happen.

So what can you do to beat the law of averages? It’s quite simple really. You must turn yourself into an unaverage sailor. And you can do that by becoming a devout follower of my Black Box Theory.

You’ll find the long version over there in the column on the right. Just click on Black Box Theory. The short version is that I believe there’s a black box on every boat, a box that stores good-luck points. You earn these points by constantly doing small but seamanlike things to keep your boat in good order.

For example, if you sniff the bilges for fumes before pushing the starter button, you'll score a point, just as you will for taking a precautionary reef at nightfall or checking the expiration date on your rocket flares. Thinking and worrying about what could happen is also a good way to earn points – say, if the wind started blowing into your quiet anchorage at 40 miles an hour and the engine wouldn't start. If you take the time and trouble to put a couple of reefs in the mainsail before you retire for the night, you earn a point for the black box. If you get up at 0300 and go on deck in the pouring rain to check if your anchor is dragging, you earn a point.

But no matter how dedicated your seamanship, there are times when there is nothing left to do but batten down the hatches and pray. If you have a credit balance of points in the box, you'll be all right. The points withdraw themselves as needed and you will survive while others suffer a crueler fate. Afterward, of course, people will say you were lucky. But we know better. That “luck” was earned, maybe over quite a long period.

I have to believe that most amateur sailors don’t bother to do all the seamanlike things they should, and it’s because they’re most that they become the average. Your aim should be to become an unaverage sailor with the help of the Black Box Theory. Unaverage is good. The law of unaverages is on your side.

Today’s Thought
My soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.
— Longfellow.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #217
How big can waves get? The U.S. Hydrographic Office says the relationship between wind speed (in miles an hour) and wave height (in feet) is approximately 2 to 1. In other words, a wind of 50 mph is capable of raising a 25-foot sea. Furthermore, the length of an average wave, from crest to crest, is about 20 times the height. So a wave 25 feet high would have a length of about 500 feet and would be moving at a speed (square root of length, times 1.34, remember?) of about 30 knots. If there is a current running against the wind, however, waves are inevitably shorter, steeper, and far more dangerous.

MEN — don’t worry about your hair falling out. Think how awful it would be if it ached, and you had to have it pulled.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)